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survival food

I got an alert on my phone yesterday from Yahoo weather–they’re the service I use to alert me of disasters, insofar as things can be broadcasted ahead of time. Typically, it’s about typhoons, but they also have a shaky-house icon they use after a major earthquake, anywhere in the nation. If you’re really close, your phone will ring. Sometimes in classrooms, a whole bunch of phones will go off, and get everybody into a tizzy, slightly before the earth starts to move in your exact vicinity.

The reason I got this new alert is to announce some changes to the settings. Apparently people in Kumamoto–which got hit by 2 big quakes recently–have been woken up night and day by the many, many aftershocks and settlings of these 2 bigger ones. Many people, especially older people, have now been living in temp housing for more than a week, spawning new outbreaks of old ailments, such as economy-class disorder, from people sitting inside immobilized, whether because of trauma, rain, fear, mobility difficulties, or all of the above. It seems like this communal life will be in effect for some time to come.

In addition to contributing in whatever way to volunteer efforts, it makes sense to think about how a similar disaster could play out in one’s home turf. Of course, nobody ever expected this to happen in Kumamoto, as Kyushu has never registered a level-7 quake before. But this is as good a reason as any to get things together at home, and to know what a range of possible realities is in various situations. One thing that’s clear is that canned bread and onigiri (the bulk of Abe’s promised 90,000 meals) may be comforting at first, but you can’t live on them for more than an immediate emergency.

I’ll be posting findings later on disaster food resources in Tokyo (and ones I brought from CA, where gourmet tech yuppies have ensured that REI and similar stores have an ample supply of coconut curries and various eclectic offerings that far outstrip what I have found here, at even higher prices.)

Here is an article I translated from a Nikkei publication, in which a reporter lives for a week on emergency foods, picks some better options, and finds some limits. Disaster, it seems, is bad for your stomach…so, all the more to support volunteer operations that are carting fresh food to underserved people in Kumamoto, as the physical and psychic costs of crappy nutrition are pretty apparent. Comments welcome!




What I Learned and What to Do About It—Canned by Canned Foods
2013/2/8 Nikkei shinbun Plus One

More and more households have started to stockpile supplies of emergency food since the 3/11 disasters. In the past, people had to make do with what they had on hand if they got stuck at home due to getting whacked by something like new strains of the flu. What kind of food supplies should people have on hand so they can get through a disaster of this kind?

This reporter (34) set out to see what it would be like to live on emergency foods for a week. I decided to keep the rest of my life “business as usual,” changing only my eating habits to fit the disaster scheme. On weekdays, I brought my emergency food as a bentō to work. I was lucky enough to spend my time in rooms with adequate heating, and to be able to jump in a warm bath—which I certainly wouldn’t be able to do in a regular disaster scenario, but I figured I would still be able to take some lessons from the situation.

Lifeline Sticking it out for 3 days

I spoke to professor emerita OKUDA Kazuko of Kōnan Women’s College, an expert in emergency food. She advised me, “you should experience what it is like to go three days without basic services (lifeline, in Japanese) like gas, water and electricity.” I decided to use a regular gas stove to heat my food after the fourth day, and to drink mineral water for the whole stretch of seven days.

At first, I had to think about what volume a week’s worth of food actually consisted of. SATŌ Kyōko, a nationally registered dietician from Sendai versed in emergency food, who advised me to eat, “staples like rice and bread, fresh foods like fish and meat, and side dishes featuring vegetables.” She added, “keep an eye out, as it’s easy to get constipation due to a lack of vitamins and fiber that you typically find in vegetables.”

I limited my food to those that had a shelf life of at least six months. As a reference, I used a menu plan for a week (21 meals) that Okuda-san made, and set out for a store that stocked a range of emergency foods. I was able to buy items that included canned bread and packaged food in pouches that you add hot water to. That cost about 10,000 yen (about $90 USD) for about a third of what I would need. It seems that things sold as emergency food are pretty pricey.

The rest I picked up at my local supermarket. Fish, like saba in miso, and canned vegetables like kiriboshi daikon were about regular price. I also bought freeze-dried spinach and dried fruits like prunes. Okuda-san also told me, “make sure to have some treats, sweet things that you like, to keep your spirits up,” so I also picked up some canned fruits, cookies and coffee candies.

You Can’t Drink Cold Minestrone

Chart of the reporter's food intake over 7 days, with comments.

Chart of the reporter’s food intake over 7 days, with comments. (If it is hard to read, you can see the original here. And the E-translation original is below.)

E-translation, 1 week of emergency food

Finally the big day arrived. I cracked open a package of congee (okayu) with ume (plum) sauce, some sweet braised chicken stew (鶏のうま煮) and some canned kiriboshi daikon. It was kind of cold, but I managed to get it down.

NAKAZAWA Takashi, of the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, commented that “on a spacecraft, you eat that day what you want to eat from a set supply of food.” He adds, “you pick according to your mood.” I started with things that you can eat even when they’re cold.

There were some flops. Like the minestrone with an oil slick floating on top that was impossible to eat lukewarm. And the packaged curry that was advertised as “good to eat even cold” was pretty awful.

The best of the bunch was definitely the congee. It was good even when cold, and since it was full of liquid, it was easy to swallow. With bread you really need water, and I didn’t really like it cold. On the evening of the third day, I started to want to eat hot things. I tried to warm a package of congee by sticking it in my futon when I went to sleep, but it didn’t get warmed up.

On the night of the third day, I ate some packaged food warmed up with a heat pack. In about 30 minutes, my dinner of white rice and stew was piping hot, and I was able to eat a hot meal for the first time in three days. The heat conducted the cooking smell, and for the first time in a while it sparked a real appetite. It actually brought a tear to my eyes. Packaged food warmed with a heat pack is pretty expensive, but when you have no access to real heat it can make a difference. I vowed to make sure some of these were in my next stash of emergency supplies.

Sodium in Canned Foods—After 4 Days, My Stomach Hurts


Main takeaways from the reporter’s experience of living on emergency food for a week (translation below).


On the fourth day, I started to use a gas stove. I thought that would really give a boost to my eating habits, but just then my stomach started to hurt. When I consulted Sato-san, she explained, “you were living on salty canned foods for a while, so maybe your system just got tired.”

For the three days that I couldn’t use the stove, even when I didn’t have a real appetite I tried to keep a good nutritional balance, eating canned fish, meat and vegetables that I wasn’t used to eating. Without noticing it looks like I pushed it too far.

Satō-san recommended that I, “plump up some freeze-dried vegetables with hot water and add a little weak broth, to make a dish that’s easier on your body.” I felt a little better after I did, and this mild taste suffused my body.

Contrast to my expectations at first, I felt the worst around days 5 and 6. My stomach went back to normal, but I had no appetite. In my case, the intake of meat and fish was harder than vegetables. Even with the same canned product, the taste varies from brand to brand. I figured out that it would be best to start from the things that your family liked eating and work from there, so that you’re already eating things you’re used to.

Okuda-san says that, “eating things that are close to what your family usually eats helps give you strength to deal with things, especially in times of emergency.” My experience during this week really brought that idea home for me.

Reporter’s jottings

Time and time again I thought to myself, wow, I really had no idea. Before, what I had in the house for 3 people was 2 bottles of water, 10 packages of prepared “alpha” rice, and 2 packs of biscuits for kids. I had a portable gas stove, in but retrospect, that seems pretty optimistic.

When the end of my experiment with emergency food was in sight, I spewed complaints at my family. The whole experience really forced me to rethink how hard it is to live when you’ve been hit with a disaster. This has been a real learning experience for me.
–Sakamoto Yōko

Originally published in Nikkei Plus One, February 2, 2013

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